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A Life-Changing Year (And I Don't Mean Covid)

Over the years, people have often asked me what I believe the definition of resilience is and how resilience ties to mental health, our quality of thinking and choosing how we respond to what happens to us.

Many of my talks focus on my Mum's story, and how she chose to respond to her very late diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease, knowing she didn't have long to live. She taught me there is power in choosing our response regardless of what we are feeling and what is happening around us.

Living and coping with the challenges we face in life builds resilience, or as I like to say, it works our resilience muscle, stretching it like an elastic band. When we face obstacles, it extends a bit further, which is how we cope with more significant challenges the next time around.

Thinking of it like that explains why individuals have differing levels of stress vulnerability. If you haven't needed to work your resilience muscle, you may struggle to cope when life throws you a curveball and find it harder to bounce back.

Mental health is entirely different from resilience; however, building mental resilience and strengthening that muscle can support us in ways that we could consider preventative.

I am talking about this not only as someone who works daily with others to improve their quality of thinking and mindset but as a 45-year-old woman who has faced the most challenging year of her life.

In a year where a global pandemic touched the whole world, and many people's lives turned on their heads, Covid wasn't the biggest thing that happened to me in 2020.

Exactly one year ago today, through Ancestry DNA, I found out that my Dad wasn't my biological Dad.

I've only spoken about it a few times. There are still members of our wider family who don't know, who might only be finding out now.

Having lost my Dad in 2010 to heart failure, I lost him all over again. It hurt.

People immediately tell you "it doesn't change anything, he's still your Dad" and they are right on one level.

On another, everything you knew to be true about yourself gets rocked to the core. You lose your identity. It's a tough thing to explain unless you experience it.

My earliest memories are of me tagging along with my Dad everywhere. He taught me to ride a bike, he took me to get my ears pierced, we went to the shops most Saturdays, and if we had time, we would stop at BHS in Staines for a cup of tea and a cake. My childhood revolved around him and his limitless capacity for love and affection, not to mention his infectious sense of humour. He was the kindest man.

I sat on the knowledge for a few days before speaking to anyone. I then had a series of very emotional conversations with my family, including my two sisters, one of my Aunties and people close to my Mum.

The conversations with my sisters were the hardest.

Back in 2002, I was at a family party, and someone drunkenly made a passing tongue in cheek comment about my eldest sister and me not getting on as we had different Dads. I almost didn't take it seriously as it seemed too absurd, but I eventually spoke to my parents who assured me it wasn't and couldn't possibly be true. I got on with my life and didn't raise it again, even after my Dad died. And I don't recall ever really thinking about it much afterwards.

After I lost Mum too, the niggling doubts slowly began bubbling to the surface. In 2019 I took a DNA test. I didn't do it with serious intent, I had been given the kit as a birthday present having always loved genealogy and family history, but deep down I hoped it would remove the doubt I had that was chipping away at me. When the initial results came in later that year, I had two very close cousin matches that I didn't recognise.

I asked my two sisters to help me, and they each took a test toward the end of 2019. My focus was on trying to find my truth. I didn't look beyond that and had no idea there would be far-reaching consequences that would impact so many people.

When the final test results arrived last January, I found out that my sisters and I all have three entirely different DNA profiles. We share the same maternal lines, but our paternal lines are all different with only my eldest sister being biologically my Dad's. We are all half-sisters.

None of us expected that.

Despite the complete shock and how utterly unexpected and life-changing, it has been, going through it together has helped. On the occasions where I've thought that no-one else in the world could understand how I feel, I remind myself that's not true.

We had so many questions. I got conflicting and confusing information from the family members I spoke to; it was hard to know what to believe given we were relying on memories from over 40 and 50 years ago.

One of the biggest things that helped me was the decision not to make any assumptions or judgements about my parents. That alone anchored me and kept me from drowning in my emotions.

We had no way of knowing what the definitive truth was surrounding my birth and my sister's, and we had no way of understanding what Mum and Dad may have been feeling at that time.

That one decision has stopped me going off down countless rabbit holes. I cannot control or change the past so as hard as it was, I made peace with it.

I then found out from three separate sources that my Dad knew. He knew, and he made a choice and a commitment and never once deviated from that decision. From the minute we were born to the day he died, we were 'Dad's Girls', his blond-haired babies as he often liked to remind us.

My Dad was, and still is my hero.

The knowledge gave me a certain sense of peace; I didn't feel like I was betraying him by wanting to find some of the answers. People who knew him and knew he was a devoted father might see it differently, but one of the biggest struggles I had was not knowing where I came from.

My sisters and I have a vague resemblance; however, we don't look alike. I had always told myself that my eldest sister looked like my Dad, my middle sister looked like my Mum and Dad, and I looked like my Mum. The truth is we're not that physically alike. It seems so obvious now.

I had to know who I looked like and what other biological family members I might have.

I decided to ignore the various conflicting narrative and follow the science.

I shut myself away and began unravelling multiple DNA profiles, reverse engineering DNA matches I had on Ancestry back 3 or 4 generations. I then worked back down their trees, looking where my maternal and paternal matches converged to get the answers I needed. I was obsessed. I wouldn't give up, and I could barely concentrate on anything else.

When I hit a block, I followed the same process for my sister's DNA

By the end of January 2020 less than two weeks after getting the email which changed my world, I successfully identified my biological father. He passed away in 2012.

In researching him, I found a first cousin. She helped where she could without compromising the privacy of the people she cared about. She sent me a picture of him when he was a young man. I took one look at it and burst into tears. I look like him.

I pieced together my sister's biological family throughout this time too, but that's not my story to tell. I am starting to wonder, however, if I'm in the wrong job.

In February, the day after my birthday, I found and contacted another sister. There is no denying we are related. She told me that somewhere out there we have a half-brother, he would have been conceived when our father was 18 and would now be in his 70's which blows my mind. I also had another half-sister who sadly died as a baby.

I spent months slowly getting to know my new sister. Her daughter warmly welcomed me, and we spent hours and hours on the phone, my niece confirmed our relationship by taking a DNA test herself in the Spring.

When summer rolled around, and we could meet people again, I finally met my new sister in the flesh. To look at her face and our similarities and ask questions. Lots of questions.

2020 was a year when I desperately wanted and needed to physically see and spend time with family old and new because 'family' had such a different meaning. Still, it was also a year where I stretched that resilience muscle further than I had before and firmly practised what I preach about 'quality of thinking' and choosing how we respond.

There is still a way to go on this journey.

I do wobble. I'm only human. Some days the enormity of the knowledge I've gained stops me in my tracks because I feel like my entire life has been re-written and I find myself looking at the memory of my past with new eyes. I also know that I've inadvertently hurt people by finding my truth yet feel very grateful for the support and understanding those individuals have given me. I have some incredible people in my life.

Last year I didn't lose anything.

I gained a lot.

I believe more than ever that our attitude towards the challenges we face is the best weapon we have to overcome them.


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